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Sean Wilkinson Dissects Might & Main's Roaring Restaurant Successes

It all started with a childhood imitation of Cheers.

Sean Wilkinson, co-founder of Might & Main.
Sean Wilkinson, co-founder of Might & Main.
Fitzgerald Photo courtesy of Might & Main

Five year old design firm Might & Main has designed many of Portland's hottest restaurants, including two current nominees for prestigious James Beard awards. Check out which ones, then come back and hear from co-founder Sean Wilkinson how his obsession with Cheers as a kid informed his adult life; why Portland's about to start seeing more abstract design; and why he keeps getting asked if he designed the new East Ender (spoiler alert: he didn't).

Who was your first food client?
Eventide Oyster Co. I totally credit [co-owners] Arlin [Smith], Andrew [Taylor], and Mike [Wiley] with why we are where we are now. You don't end up where we've been by working on mediocre restaurants.

So you put each other on the map?
Totally. About a year in to Might & Main, I spent a lot of time unintentionally hanging around where industry folks were. The after-ten-o-clock hours are when the industry starts coming out, so you meet these people.

Have you always been a fan of food culture?
My mom and aunts worked at this J's Oyster-esque seafood restaurant when I was growing up. A couple of uncles had basement bars, which I thought was the coolest thing. I watched a lot of Cheers...all that sort of started the restaurant enchantment early for me.

I endlessly polished the top of the bureau with Pledge.

At some point in middle school I even set up my room as a bar. I turned my bureau around and filled the drawers with bottles of colored water. I dimmed the lights and had an old Löwenbrau sign hung up. My brother would come in and I'd "mix him a drink," we'd listen to Led Zeppelin. I endlessly polished the top of the bureau with Pledge.

How'd your parents feel about it?
I don't think they were particularly worried about it, since it was centered more around the act of hanging out than it was about drinking. I loved the idea of being part of the super cool, vibrant culture that existed around food. Once we had a year of good work under our belt at Might & Main, I was like, "We should work for restaurants."

How'd you get involved with Eventide?
I used to hang out at Hugo's for happy hour. Roxanne [Dragon] was behind the bar, Arlin was the manager. I was there all the time and bugged those guys. When they decided to buy the place and open an oyster bar, I think they were like, "Oh, I know somebody who does design work." So Arlin got in touch. It was funny, mysterious. Arlin doesn't operate by email, he operates by telephone. He called me and was like, "Hey...I have a project I want to talk to you about but not over the phone. Can we meet at Rosie's tomorrow for lunch?" Lunch was a bunch of Guinnesses, He told me they were purchasing Hugo's from Rob [Evans] and Nancy [Pugh], he had bought the old Rabelais space next door, and they wanted us to work on the Eventide concept. I remember skipping back to our office, saying, "Not only did that meeting go really well, but we're going to open an oyster bar and work on restaurants now."

Might and Main

Did you immediately turn your desk around and start polishing it with Pledge?
You've been to our parties. Making drinks at the office has always been a part of our culture.

So you designed the Eventide brand. Then what?
Then Duckfat. I feel like Rob and Nancy were looking at what was happening over at Eventide and thinking, "We could use a little refresh too." They were awesome to work with. You could see where Arlin and the guys learned some of their skills. It was cool to go from starting something brand new to rebranding a seven-year institution.

Which is easier: Designing a new brand or redesigning an existing one?
Easier is starting new, only because there's no fear of change involved. Our process is generally designed to guide people. They come to us with an idea, and by the time they see stuff, we've worked through a lot of brand strategy. If we're starting from scratch, it's easier for us to find their signature color palette or typeface, because they're not used to anything.

You guys have two clients that are currently nominated for James Beard awards: Eventide and Central Provisions. What role does your company plays in that success?
That's a trap. "Everything! You're nothing without us!" It's a great question. It's an interesting field we're in, like music or any kind of art. People can review things, tell you what's great or terrible, but it's ultimately subjective. I could find somebody who'd write you an amazing review of Old Country Buffet, because it's what their ideal food is.

It feels disposable, which, hopefully, subconsciously says, "This is super fresh."

But our goal is to help you communicate to guests from the outset that you've paid attention to details, done your due diligence, and you're going to go the extra step. We can make your place look attractive to somebody and that makes them want to walk in. But once they're in there there's a level of information design. Can they find the information they need quickly and easily? Also, are things presented in a way that they can make effective decisions about what they want to eat, get excited, and have these little magic moments?

I'll go to Eventide as an example. Their daily menu is printed on the same stuff newspapers are. It's a conscious decision. It feels disposable, which, hopefully, subconsciously says, "This is super fresh. You will be the last person to see this menu. The next one that comes out might be different." Because they print the menu three or four times a day. It also says — because people love Eventide so much — if you want to take this menu home, nobody's gonna miss it if you fold it up and put it in your purse or pocket. It alludes to the fish and chips vibe, this pedestrian, approachable thing. In fact if they print too many they'll use it in a basket and put fried food on top of it. So it'll be yesterday's menu soaking up the grease of today's fish. And they're super cheap. It runs on their laser printer in house and it's possibly the cheapest paper you can buy.

But then contrast that with their beer coaster, which probably costs .65 cents or more, it's super thick, two colors, ultra-luxe, letterpress-printed, which says this essentially disposable item has been given attention. It tells people they care about all the little things. When they shake your cocktail, they're going to taste it before they serve it. When they put my plate together, they're going to take a second to wipe the crap off the edge before they put it in front of me.

Fine dining is not based on budgetary concerns, it's based on aesthetics and expectations.

Then their cocktail menu is all printed on PVC-based paper. It's meant to last four months. If it gets dirty, they can literally dunk it in the sink and wipe it off. Because at the end of the day, Eventide is a little more industrial and practical than The Honey Paw or Hugo's. It's different for every restaurant. We have been lucky to work for restaurants where communicating that level of care and attention to detail is important, and we can help them communicate it.

That seems to resonate with people.
We're a visual culture. We make snap judgments based on what things look like. I don't smell all the deodorants on the aisle. I don't like gray: I'm not gonna buy Degree. I don't like white: I'm not gonna buy Sure. I like red, and I like the commercials, so I buy Old Spice. I shop at Whole Foods mostly because of the aesthetic experience. I think more and more people are of that mindset, especially as we have more income to spend. Obviously fine dining is not based on budgetary concerns, it's based on aesthetics and expectations.

How was it to revamp Hugo's after you'd designed Eventide?
Eventide was so casual and cool and light and airy and open, then Hugo's was dark, vintage, gentlemen's club, leather, green banker's lamps, exposed brick and iron and dark woods, a different vibe that feels rich. They don't get hand-painted white signage on the windows, they get machined, intricate gold leaf signage. We tried to tie the two brands together so they feel like part of a family — they share subtle typographic similarities — yet they're totally different. You know Eventide's a place you can walk into in jeans and a t-shirt but we wanted to make Hugo's feel like a place you choose your attire more carefully — without feeling too pretentious. It's all about first impressions.

Might and Main

Can you have a house design but ensure you're not copying yourself with all these restaurants?
I feel like as time has gone by, it's easier for us to recognize we have a certain set of house aesthetics. We work really hard to make sure things don't look alike but when you have a creative director in charge of decisions, things are going to be put through that person's filter.

We try to make sure that the overall appearance for each restaurant is appropriate, and we turn projects down on a fairly regular basis because we're afraid they may be a conflict. If somebody were to open a nordic-themed craft cocktail bar and asked us to design the menu systems, that'd be a no-brainer for us to say no to [because of Might & Main's work with The Portland Hunt and Alpine Club], or if somebody were opening an oyster bar. We're very conscious of differentiation in this town.

At this point I think all of our clients are in their niche, but there's a through-line. A certain spare use of color, a starkness in illustration, a strength of typography. Things other places don't do the same way. I think that might be more stark in Portland in that not a lot of places have been using designers. A lot of places use a DIY technique, or approach design as an also-ran. It's not an afterthought, but it's, "Oh right, we need a logo."

If you spend a week here and have dinner at six different places, it can't be six Fore Streets.

So I feel like in a way we're not doing ourselves a favor by making our logos stand out because it's easy to pull those out, stick them next to each other, and think they're coming from the same place. It's also a very small city. As many restaurants as we have, we definitely have worked with a good percentage. That's part of our mission in terms of branching out to Boston, New York, Providence. I talked to a guy in Portsmouth who wanted us to work on his restaurant because he was afraid other places were all starting to look like this one firm that had done a bunch of them. I think we are perversely obsessed with not making anything look like the next thing. In fact we get a little exasperated with design shops that have a distinct formula. We're very conscious of it.

You've worked with a lot of places over the past few years, though.
We've designed a shitload of restaurants in a very short amount of time, so there's something to be said for the world of trends. I think this sounds pompous, but somebody said designers are ten years ahead of trends, and the work they do within a client's comfort zone can be as far as five years ahead of trends. Our mission for any brand is that we try to feel like it's timeless, like it could be around twenty years and not get touched. I think we designed a dozen restaurants in four years and they're of a time. But there's a shift over time and the first couple of things you'll feel are breaking out of that mold are EVO and The Honey Paw. Things are getting a little more geometric, abstract, weird.

the honey paw logo corey templeton

People are getting out of this rustic elegance comfort set, which is a very Portland vibe. People love it, and it's very Portland appropriate, but I think Portland is finding confidence in itself as a city and we don't need to reinforce our own aesthetics as much anymore. We can be a bit more metropolitan, melting pot, and weird, and other stuff can come to town. I feel there've been some places that don't get the appreciation they should for being forward-thinking, like Pai Men. I thought it was gorgeous when it opened, totally different from anything else in town, weird melange of metropolitan and New York and Japanese noodle house, and I know that was pieced together with [owner] Masa [Miyake] and his architects. It looks great. It'll be refreshing to see more stuff like that. If you spend a week here and have dinner at six different places, it can't be six Fore Streets, six places with exposed brick, leather couches, mahogany bar, and letterpress menus.

You guys have kind of a lockdown on one strip of Middle Street. But East Ender's not one of your designs, is it?
It's not, but I've been asked about it a lot. It goes back to the whole trend thing. We try to be a little ahead of the trends in order to secure some longevity for our clients. I think a couple years after Eventide went live, there were a lot of places using the same style: type on an arc, drop shadow made out of strokes, simple, grotesque, condensed typeface, spare white-blue color palette, a lot of touch points there that became popular trends. I think what East Ender ended up with was ultimately really cool, simple, as Eater said of the interior, "shockingly subdued." I feel like it fits the rest of the vibe. Their personality comes through in the food, maybe more so than in the brand elements or their choice of paint colors.

east ender menus

[Photo: Kyle J. Norris]

Any lingering designs on opening your own Cheers?I always wanted to open a bar, but I feel so lucky that I've been looped into the industry where I feel like I'm a part of the cool kids' club, but I'm not up till three in the morning, cleaning noodles out of a floor drain. I'm hoping to continue in the most organic way possible. We love Portland, we're as committed to it as we are to our restaurants. We'll never leave Portland.